JOK Notebook

Even Monkeys Fall from Trees

One of my pet peeves is when people say, "Japanese is easy to learn!" I've heard this several times, once from a native Japanese speaker (a teacher, no less) who kept saying that knowing when to use は versus が is a breeze. If you remember just one rule, it should cover all decisions. I then told her that the grammar book I was reading listed something like 14 rules. Two Americans also informed me that learning Japanese is simple. Both had become fluent, but one had never bothered to study kanji. (He did all right for himself anyway in Japan. I'm talking about Donald Richie.)

I'm always flabbergasted when I hear such comments, first because they couldn't be further from the truth and second because the speaker really seems to think that this contribution is helpful. How could it be? If I'm failing at something and you tell me that it's a cinch, is that in any way productive or kind?

I'm less certain about the reverse situation. If I consider the kanji mistakes that native speakers tend to make, is that heartening or discouraging? I for one feel hopeful whenever I sense that we all share the same struggle and that none of us is invulnerable in the face of the endlessly complicated kanji system. Maybe I'm perverse in finding comfort in such a thing, but I do. I know others must, too, or else people wouldn't use the following expression:

Even monkeys fall from trees.

猿 (さる: monkey); 木 (き: tree); 落ちる (おちる: to fall)

That is, even creatures as agile as monkeys miss a branch from time to time. In that sense we're all "human," even if some of us are actually simian!

If you don't find that reassuring, you should probably read no further because I'll be sharing a few kanji mistakes that native speakers have made.

It's Elementary!

The following photo from essay 1421 on 壌 (arable soil) contains a mistake:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Here's the text again, but this time without the error:

Medium-high and tall evergreen olive trees grow well in warm climates with little rain and like sunny spots with soil that drains well.

常緑 (じょうりょく: evergreen); 中高木 (ちゅうこうぼく: medium-high and tall trees); 温暖少雨 (おんだんしょうう: warm climate with little rain; warm and dry); 気候 (きこう: climate); 成長 (せいちょう: growth); 日当たり (ひあたり: exposure to the sun); 水はけ (みずはけ: drainage); 土壌 (どじょう: soil); 好む (このむ: to like)

Can you find the discrepancy?! Ah, don't work too hard. It's the weekend. Here's the answer: Although the sign says 温暖小雨, I have changed it to 温暖少雨. Whereas 温暖少雨 means “warm climate with little rain; warm and dry,” which makes sense in this context, 温暖小雨 means “warm light rain” or “warm drizzle,” which does not.

My proofreader caught the error in the sign and said, “Mixing up 小 and 少 is one of the most common mistakes native Japanese speakers make.” 

Did you hear that? We're talking about 小 versus 少, which kids learn in first and second grades, respectively! If these characters are from elementary school, the matter must be elementary, dear Watson, and yet one stroke trips lots of people up! Whew! I feel less alone already!

Shaking Things Up

I wanted to use the following photo in essay 1113 on 憾 (to regret strongly), but I had to remove it because of another mistake:

You can find this product on Amazon along with the following description:

Long wallet with the luxuriant feeling of goat leather.

山羊 (やぎ: goat); 革 (かわ: leather); 使う (つかう: to use); ふっくら (luxuriantly); 感 (かん: feeling); 長財布 (ながざいふ: long wallet)

The bag uses cheerfully elegant colors in a fun way, and you can regret their existence even in a bag.

明るい (あかるい: cheerful); 上品 (じょうひん: elegant); 色使い (いろづかい: color usage); 使う (つかう: to use); 楽しい (たのしい: fun); 鞄 (かばん: bag); 中でも (なかでも: among (other things)); 存在 (そんざい: existence)

Regret their existence???? What's going on here?! 

"It's a mistake," said my proofreader. "It should have been 存在感 (a sense of existence; a presence)." Ah, so they mixed up 憾 and 感. They were trying to say, "The bag uses cheerfully elegant colors in a fun way, and you can feel their existence even in a bag." 

If the text didn't truly include 憾, the photo didn't belong in essay 1113. I was disappointed because I really wanted people to know that someone is making long orange wallets out of goat skin. Everything about that repulses me, but then I love goats and hate orange. 

Anyway, the mistaken use of 憾 was by no means confined to that page. I found the word 震憾 on five Amazon pages, including this one. However, that word was not in my dictionaries, so I was stumped.

In every case, the second kanji should have been the look-alike 撼, which shares an on-yomi of カン with 憾, making the error even more likely; typing カン brings up either choice.

When a dictionary does include 震憾, it also presents 震撼 as the far more common and widely accepted term. The non-Joyo 撼 means “shaking” or “causing movement.” Because 憾 doesn’t mean anything of the sort, we can characterize the use of 震憾 in place of 震撼 as a mistake that has caught on or that people consistently overlook.

Devil of a Time

The next example again comes from essay 1421 on 壌 (arable soil) and doesn't actually contain an error. However, this book title is nearly impossible to translate. Given the absence of hiragana, it not only looks Chinese but also leaves us no indication of how the parts connect grammatically. This title gave me and two proofreaders a devil of a time, but here's what we finally produced as a translation:

「土壌汚染調査技術管理者試験 攻略過去問題集」
Workbook with Past Exam Questions for Success in the Examination to Become an Engineering Manager for Soil Pollution Investigations

土壌汚染 (どじょうおせん: soil pollution); 調査 (ちょうさ: investigation); 技術管理者 (ぎじゅつかんりしゃ: engineering manager); 試験 (しけん: examination); 攻略 (こうりゃく: passing; success (in an exam)); 過去問題集 (かこもんだいしゅう: collection of past (exam) questions)

If that's how the whole book reads, it might be easier to master kanji than to become an engineering manager for soil pollution investigations!

The newest essay is all about feeling superior to other people:

However, given the humbling experiences I've just shared, I for one feel like dialing down the contempt right now. After all, I'm at the very bottom of the tree with a lot of stunned monkeys, feeling amazed yet again at just how challenging kanji can be. (As it happens, next week I'll introduce my essay on the challenge kanji, 挑!)


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